Describing abilities - DPU International College
  • By CIBA International Program
  • Modified August 3, 2016

Describing abilities

Describing abilities and other uses of ‘can’ and ‘could’

Canis a modal auxiliary verb and is consequently always followed by an infinitive verb, which means the base form of the verb, without any suffix (i.e. with no ‘-ed’, ‘-s’ or ‘-ing’ ending). This also means that you don’t have to worry about making the main verb agree with the subject of the sentence.

I can see you.   I can play guitar. He can write in Thai.  I can speak French.  She can drive a car.



‘Can’ is used in three main ways:

  • It is used to indicate your ability to do something. For example:


I can speak Dutch.            I can drive a car.

I can play golf.                   I can cook Italian food.


Task 1: What can you do?

I can _________________________.

I can _________________________.

I can _________________________.


Task 2: What can your partner do? Ask him/her about his/her abilities:

Can you _____________________?            He / She can ____________________.

Can you _____________________?            He / She can ____________________.

Can you _____________________?            He / She can ____________________.


Note: when you ask a ‘Can you…’ question, the answer is either:

‘’Yes, I can’             or                No, I can’t’



To indicate things we do not have the ability to do, we use cannot or can’t. For example,

I can’t speak Japanese.            I can’t read Thai.          I can’t cook very well.










Task 3: What are some examples of things you and your partner can’t do?

I can’t _____________________.

I can’t _____________________.

My partner can’t ______________________.

My partner can’t ______________________.


We also usebe able toto describe abilities:

I am able to speak three languages

I am able to run 100 metres in 11 seconds.

She is able to cook many different types of food.


For negatives, we usebe not able to’:

I am not able to write in Chinese.

He is not able to drive a car.


We also use ‘unable to’ to indicate things we can’t do:

‘I am unable to help you today’

‘I am unable to speak French very well’


Note: ‘be able to’  and ‘unable to’ are also used to indicate availability:

e.g. I am not able to meet you tonight (because I am busy)

I am able to visit you at 7pm.

I am unable to get there at 6pm. Can we meet at 7pm?


Can is the only modal verb that has a past tense equivalent, which is could.

It is used to describe abilities that you had in the past, but no longer have.

For instance,


‘When I was young, I could play football very well.’

‘I could speak French quite well when I was at school, but I have forgotten it now.’


Task: Can you think of anything or your partner could do in the past, but you can’t do now?

When I was young, I could__________________________________, but now I can’t / don’t.

When (s)he was a child, (s)he could____________________________.

























Task: Find someone who…

Talk to other students and find someone who can do the following activities:

Ask for additional information too.


ActivityName of studentExtra details
Drive a car
Run very fast
Speak Chinese
Ride a motorbike
Draw cartoons
Cook delicious food
Play a musical instrument
Repair a computer
Read Japanese


  • Using canto indicate possibility


The modal verbs ‘can’ and ‘could’ are also used to describe the likelihood or possibility of events.

Here are some examples:

                          ‘Not paying attention in class can lead to failure in exams’

                                   ‘It can rain at any time during the rainy season’

                                         ‘You can come to visit me if you want to’

                                            ‘We can go shopping or see a movie’

                                                     ‘Can we go out for dinner?


Could is also used to indicate a possible outcome or consequence:


                                                ‘It could cause global warming’

                                          ‘The traffic problem could be improved’

                                 ‘Not doing your homework could lead to low grades’

                         ‘Rising prices could cause problems for people with low income’

                   ‘Eating too much fatty meat could lead to health problems in the future’


 Task: Try to write some sentences which indicate the consequences of the following:

1) Eating cakes and candy every day could ________________________________.

2) Heavy rain could _____________________.

3) Real Madrid could ______________________________.

4) I could ______________________________ if I could speak English very well.

5) We could _________________________ after class.



CanandCould is also used to indicate your willingness to do something or to make a request or a suggestion, for example    

‘I could help you on Monday’.(willingness)
‘Could you show me you ID card please?’(request)
‘We could go swimming if you like’(suggestion)
‘I can show you how to do it next weekend’ (willingness/offer)
‘Can you pass the tomato ketchup please?’ (request)
‘We can eat at a restaurant tonight’ (suggestion)


      3) We can also use ‘can’ to ask for or give permission, for example,


‘Can I stay at my friend’s house tonight, mum?’(Asking for permission)
‘You can have some money if you help me with the housework’ (Giving permission)
‘You can leave when you have finished your assignment’ (Giving permission)
‘Can I leave the room please, sir’ (Asking for permission)


When talking about the past, you use could to indicate the things that you were allowed to do:

‘When I was at school I could wear casual clothes on Fridays’ (was allowed to)

And ‘couldn’t’ to describe the things that you were not allowed to do, for example,




‘We couldn’t leave the classroom without asking for permission’.


Task: Match the sentence with the correct use of ‘can’

AbilityWillingness/ offerRequestLikelihoodAsking for permissionMaking a suggestionConsequenceGiving permission


SentenceUse of ‘can’
1 ‘We could go to the beach if you like’

2 ‘Could I have an apple, please?’

3 ‘ I can repair your computer on Tuesday’

4 ‘The weather could get hotter tomorrow’

5 ‘Can I go out tonight, mum?’

6 If the prices rise, the demand could fall’

7 ‘I can speak three languages’

8 ‘You can go out with your friend if you help me first’